New guns from old
Vic Harker visits Atkin, Grant & Lang in Hertfordshire and discovers that the company's new proprietors are doing some exciting things with old guns.
Putting three illustrious names from the history of gunmaking together signifies nothing more than that. Unless, of course, it represents a meaningful output that further enhances those names. And that is precisely the ambition of the new proprietors of Atkin, Grant and Lang (AGL).
Retaining its location at the company's shooting ground at Markyate, near St. Albans, there is room for development in every aspect of their business. This will include the manufacture of a new back-action over-under that will be made under the Stephen Grant name, and the reintroduction of Henry Atkin's assisted opening spring-action sidelock. Rifles of every kind will be under the Joseph Lang banner and the Stephen Grant name will be used to develop the Baker action shotgun.
Meanwhile, the remaking and restoring of high quality English guns by each of the three makers, very much part of the company's previous owner's business, is to be further expanded. Matt Hunt, a director in the company and my host for the day at Markyate explained: “We think of the process as very much like restoring a vintage motorcar, you may have only the chassis but everything else can be remade.”
Alan Bower has been the workshop manager at AGL for nearly 14 years, and oversees every aspect of remade gun production and deals with each customer on a personal basis. He emphasised the huge savings to the customer in working with an original action body and serial number, rather than a newly engineered one, not least because the cost of a remanufactured gun does not carry VAT.
As for the rest of the gun, every other component including the barrels, stock and trigger mechanism can be made from scratch. As Alan was also keen to point out, there are no shortcuts taken in this process and everything is made either by the company or outworkers within the British gun trade.
What the company describes as donor guns, originally made by either Henry Atkin, Stephen Grant or Joseph Lang, form the basis of this production. Examples are selected based on action type and the ejector work – which are preferably of the modern Southgate design – and overall condition in terms of the action body and the lock-work. The crispness of the original engraving is also taken into account.
The process begins with stripping the donor gun down to its component parts. The original barrels are carefully assessed and wall thickness measured. It's at this point the decision to retain or discard them is made. In most cases new barrels are made, with length, chokes and chamber length to the customer's individual requirements. What should also be appreciated is that these new barrels will maintain the gun's original fine balance and handling qualities. As to their capacity to digest modern ammunition, including steel shot, the new barrels will have the strength as found in modern guns and will be proofed accordingly.
The action body and the fore-end iron is then sent to the barrel filer Scott Wood in Buckinghamshire, who supplies a new pair of best quality chopper-lump barrels. The chambers and chokes are in the rough and no ribs are fitted at this stage. The barrels and action are then sent to L W Butler, Gun and Rifle Makers at West Wycombe, where they are jointed together, the chambers and chokes are finished and the ejector work and extractors are fitted.
I talked to Lee Butler, the highly experienced and skilful actioner who carries out this work. He shares AGL's view that there is no substitute for top quality handwork, and AGL's remanufactured guns are assembled employing exactly the same methods used to produce the original guns.
The gun is now returned to Alan Bower in Markyate who prepares it for proofing, ensuring the bite and jointing is as tight as possible. Then on to the London Proof House where the gun is submitted for 70mm 2" (850bar) 18.5mm London Proof. This will also cover 70mm steel cartridges, providing the choke is not more than 20thou constriction. The barrels are also provided with long forcing cones to relieve pressures developed by steel shot ammunition. Atkin, Grant and Lang have found the 18.5mm bore provides optimum results with fibre wadded cartridges and reduces barrel wear.
The proofed gun is then returned to Scott Wood, who fits the ribs and completes the profiling and polishing. The lock and ejector work is then rebuilt with new parts which include ejector trips, firing pins, springs and striker discs, all of which are hardened and tempered in-house.
The gun is now ready for stocking. Fitting to the customer is done at the company's shooting ground and dimensions are determined and suitably translated into walnut. As to whether the gun is a Henry Atkin, a Stephen Grant or a Joseph Lang, their original house style can be replicated or other configurations accommodated.
On return from stocking, the barrelled action is prepared for engraving by annealing, a softening process. The engraving can replicate the original maker's house styling or a design of the customer's choosing. The action is then hardened by St. Ledger, a company specialising in this, yet another traditional craft. The barrels are sent separately to Stephens & Johnston, a company specialising in providing a best London black. The stock is finished with an oil to a special recipe to give an excellent London finish. Supervised by Alan Bower, final regulation of all the gun's mechanical functioning is then carried out.
The fun part of my visit to AGL was of course shooting an example of their remade guns. In this particular case it was a Stephen Grant 16 bore with new 30" barrels, although the original Damascus ones were in excellent condition and had been retained. Tipping the scales at under 6lb, this remade aristocrat had the balance and feel of its original incarnation. On AGL's extensive sporting layout, it seemed to point itself – my task merely to pull the trigger to break clay targets. There is no doubt owning and using a best London gun represents a unique experience; that AGL make this possible at a fraction of the cost of something entirely produced today is an opportunity not to be missed.
Prices start at £18,500 and delivery is within 12 months.
Atkin Grant & Lang
Tel. +44 (0)1582 849 382